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Slut Rock? Louise Brown On Using Sexuality & Gender In Metal
Louise Brown , July 2nd, 2012 11:29

The former editor of Terrorizer, Louise Brown, on why female metal stars who bare flesh aren't letting the side down... just their plunging neck lines

Main photograph of Butcher Babies courtesy of DJ Garibay; portrait of Mares Of Thrace by Colin Hart; photo of Butcher Babies below by Michael Bell

The metal scene loves to categorise itself. You can be black metal, or death metal, and sometimes you can be black/death metal. There’s post-rock, and post-metal and post-hardcore, and metalcore and deathcore and darkwave and crossover thrash and symphonic gothic metal, but the latest genre to come out of the myriad styles of heavy metal is “slut rock”. Slut rock. Ponder that concept just for a few minutes. Are we really surprised? Has the rise of raunch culture finally found its way to the heavy metal world? Was it always there?

Slut rock’s birth came from a new metal band from Hollywood, who dubbed themselves as such in American music magazine Revolver. Butcher Babies, who on their Facebook page namecheck luminaries such as Wendi O. Williams, Pantera and Alice Cooper as influences, have been hailed as the “hottest new metal band” by Hustler journalist Keith Valcourt, a phrase mostly bandied about to give a lil’ journalistic kudos to game-changers and ground-breakers, but in this instance we can safely presume that Valcourt actually meant they were hot, as in bangin’, for Butcher Babies are fronted by Heidi Shepherd and Carley Harvey, two former Playboy TV personalities. Their “hotness”, whether we mean in terms of musical proficiency or varying levels of pulchritudinous quality, was judged by hordes of British metalheads when the duo, backed by members of Amen, Azdachao and Scars Of Tomorrow, played at this month’s Download Festival, where they appeared alongside Metallica, Soundgarden and Black Sabbath.

"We can't go balls out – so we go tits out,” they told Revolver in explanation of their chosen genre moniker. “When girls are perceived as sexual or outspoken, they get labelled sluts, but we embrace those qualities and bring them to our music." Their performance was broadcast on heavy metal’s favourite interweb baiting pit, Blabbermouth, recently and while the music may have whiffed a wee bit of carpark mosh metal of the lowest common denominator, the dual-vocalled frontwomen at least had cojones, despite claiming otherwise. Wearing Lolita-esque frocks with breasts audaciously on display, bar some carefully placed electric tape (ouch), Carley and Heidi flounced through some brilliantly marketed throwdowns to an audience of alpha-males. The upper-echelons of intelligence despaired, or went to watch those bastions of post-feminism Steel Panther on the other stage perhaps?

And while Butcher Babies were cavorting around on a field in Leicestershire, over in Germany, Metalfest saw the European debut of another Californian troop, Huntress. This time, the band looked to metal masters Mercyful Fate, American doomlords Pentagram and Swedish Satanists Dissection for influence, providing a melodic, thrashing Sturm und Drang as their musical bedrock. But, like Butcher Babies, their vocalist was female and in varying states of undress. Jill Janus, a classically-trained opera singer who swapped the farms of upstate New York for the glitz and glamour of LA where she became a DJ for Playboy lothario Hugh Hefner, has a banshee wail that could flay skin and with recent Napalm Records debut Spell Eater has been finding herself cast into the heavy metal spotlight.

Although it may be coincidence that this summer saw the rise of two bands with tenuous links to the sprawling many-tentacled beast that is Playboy Industries, we have to ask ourselves how it came to pass that the silky robed magnate Hef came to dip his toes into rock culture. As an alternative to the over-sexed mainstream, heavy metal always seemed a safe haven for women who did not want to be objectified, either as performer or punter. But while discussing this hypothesis with a friend, it was suggested that it’s perhaps easy to be blind to the airbrushed Amazonian allure of Doro, the dominatrix shtick of Betsey Bitch or if you look further back, the tantalising sex magick of Coven, perhaps because these women are now seen as idols, not sex symbols, but at the time... well, maybe time has rose-tinted our feminist history.

Have metal and rock always been sexualised and should we be shocked when bands like Butcher Babies or Huntress “get em out for the lads”? While Coven, much like her modern day muse in Jill Janus, used spirituality to explain her enchanting eroticism, the ‘80s metal scene was awash with glam metal’s less-than-PC attitude to Girls, Girls and Girls, but the female metal artists, such as Lita Ford, Kate Acid or The Great Kat, were kicking ass, not displaying it. As few as they were, the “Ladykillers”, as Kerrang! Magazine called them, were not paraded around for titillation but were celebrated as goddesses of rock and became more than just wet dream idols but role models for girls too, especially for a certain future metal magazine editor. Even when Page 3 model Sam Fox went AOR it was all fun and frolics, not outwardly exploitative, and she certainly had the jams to back up her jelly.

As 80s metal excess turned to 90s self-exploration the riot grrls made the most noise, mainly because their male counterparts were wearing cardigans and writing poetry and it looked like alternative culture was being streamrollered by the XX chromosome, and not by using feminine wiles; this was the era of cherry red Doc Martens and jumpers knitted by your nan that covered your modesty. The riot grrls did not diet or listen to stylists paid by marketing execs, and when they revealed their bits it was to instigate derision not erection. But in a post-Millennial metal scene, have our female role models regressed back to a pre-feminist mindspace? When did it become okay to bare all to shift units? The 2000s saw a shift toward further acceptance of the female voice in heavy metal, to the point where people would call foul at the use of the term “female-fronted metal”, claiming that we should be past the point of seeing the distinction. And the naysayers had a point; Arch Enemy’s Angela Gossow, with her death metal rumble and biker bitch from hell attitude had very little in common with Cristina Scabbia of Lacuna Coil’s coy gothic sultryness, or Within Temptation chantreuse Sharon den Adel’s pompous Wuthering Heights warble, but all were lumped together in the same “sit at the back of the bus” classification.

We’ve moved on from that: bands like Landmine Marathon, Christian Mistress and Ides Of Gemini can launch their careers free from the “gasp, it’s a chick singing” shock that would have followed them even just five years ago. But lately it seems the raunch has entered the ranch, which poses us two problems likely to get feminists’, post-feminists’ and pre-feminists’ knickers in a labyrinth of twists (whether they be edible thongs or sensible cotton briefs from M&S). First, should we be up-in-arms about something more than a glimpse of side-boob entering our safe-sexed domain? And secondly, who are we to assert our power by forcing the moral high ground on our saucy sisters? Should we all be forced to deny our femininity in jeans and T-shirt? Or should we force our female metal singers to play the virgin and therefore become shackled by the social standard that belittles our own sexual agenda? If raunch culture is the new feminism, are the Butcher Babies and Huntress actually forging a new type of power with their brazenness?

When I first discovered Huntress I thanked the goddesses of sales spikes. At the time I was editor of Terrorizer Magazine, and not only did I warm to their high-octane, high-octave traditional fare that screamed “I’m the new gateway band to get the younger generation into King Diamond” (otherwise known as the holy grail of heavy metal), but I understood that here was a beautiful woman, with blood dripping down her breasts, that would wake my core readers from their World Of Warcraft slump with one slip of a nipple. But then we got the backlash – a lot of my intelligent, politically-correct girlfriends called foul. They accused Huntress of being a gimmick, style over substance and nothing more than a falsetto with fun bags. It made me ponder, why we can't accept a female musician who plays up to a male fantasy ideal? And on the flip-side, can we only find success by sexualising ourselves? And why attack Huntress, when across the border, Canadian sludge duo Mares Of Thrace are being hailed as heroines with their all-girl, swampy, heavy-as-fuck doom dealings, but all the while they kitten purr for the camera in 50s housewife get-up that screams “Come get your cupcakes, boys."

Jill Janus may be less subtle in her witches cape and sangre-sauced boobies, but she cannot be accused of being the only contemporary female musician to use sex to sell. From clothes-shy black metal vixen Possessed Demoness (perhaps not the name she was born with) and Finnish black metallers Anguished to Iranian death metal vixen Somi Arian, they all understand that a glimpse of ankle alone is not sufficient when it comes to self-promotion. But is it the only option? British/Dutch brutal death metal machine Cerebral Bore are fronted by a woman, but you wouldn’t know it from their press photos or marketing machine. Dutch demon-worshippers The Devil’s Blood, cover their nameless singer (she is known by “F The Mouth Of Satan” only) in blood and prevent her from doing interviews so she speaks only through the music, which heightens her power beyond being “sexual” to being nearer to divine.

In discussion on this very topic with Huntress singer Jill, she said “I've heard a few times that a woman doesn't belong on stage as a metal singer. The women who prove themselves and maintain longevity are a different breed. They are rare creatures, not quite human. I am still just breaking into this world, I will need to prove I can stand with the Gods of Metal. If I wanted it to be an easy journey, I'd throw on a Victorian gown; the glorification of mediocrity. Instead, I aspire to be vocally sexless. I have used sorcery to draw you closer to the flame, the costumes I have chosen thus far represent the first phase, The Maiden. I will next evolve into The Mother, and eventually The Crone. There will always be preconceptions and misconceptions about Huntress. That's fine. I'm not here to change the world, I exist and that is enough. I don't betray my sisterhood by showing my flesh, I am Pagan. I embrace nature and nudity. When I feel the fear attempting to take hold of me, I think of a line from Macbeth, ‘...Come, you spirits that tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here’. That always murders the trolls.”

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Shakespeare aside, you have to wonder if aspiring to Lady Mac’s transgender whimsy or her own ambition to adopt the guise of the crone would have sold Huntress as many records or garnered them as many magazine interviews. Could Mares Of Thrace have omitted the slow pan across drummer Stephanie’s cleavage in the video for their landmark riff-fest ‘General Sherman’ and still had over 20,000 hits? Would Butcher Babies have been invited to ply their trade on Donington Park’s hallowed ground if they’d dressed like Leah from Nadja in a homemade sweater and sensible shoes? And would we miss bemoaning their success as being down to how they dress? Are we embracing “slut rock” as the next movement in feminist theory, or going to bash our sisters for letting the side down and send them care packages of polo-necks and a good-fitting bra?

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